It's not every day a girl gets a chance to see something she designed on her laptop roll off an industrial press, get printed onto stretchy fabric, and fashioned into a pair of Wonder Woman-inspired yoga tights.
But that was my situation last Wednesday at Boathouse Sports, the Northeast Philly athletic-apparel company known worldwide for the high-tech performance gear it makes for 5,000 to 6,000 high school and college sports teams.
This week, however, the privately held, multimillion-dollar company will launch a new retail arm of its business that is certainly more style-driven. Boathouse's website is now replete with scoop-neck T-shirts, cute waterproof jackets — some with '80s stripes, others with high-low hems and hoodies — racer-back sports bras, and aloha-style board shorts. Most of the clothes were thought up by a team led by Tom Carberry, a former designer for Brooks Bros., Abercrombie & Fitch, and Urban Outfitters. "There are about five million people in team sports, but 80 [million] to 100 million athletic-apparel enthusiasts," said John Strotbeck, founder and CEO of Boathouse Sports. Strotbeck estimates that by year's end, Boathouse will clear $1 million in non-team-related retail sales. "We want to hit a much more broader audience who we like to call the United States of Athletes."
In addition to the scores of premade styles available on Boathouse's new website, customers can now custom-design a select offering of apparel.
While Strotbeck, 60, who competed in the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Games, is not anywhere near a fashion enthusiast (in fact, the Boathouse office is at the very unsexy intersection of Whitaker and Hunting Park Avenues), it will be this very fashion-driven component that will allow his business to distinguish itself from athletic-apparel competitors like Lululemon and Under Armour, which also sell tights for more than $100.
"Customization is the future," said Elissa Bloom, executive director of the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator, who said she has seen many young designers — including two in this year's incubator program — who were trying to work customization into their business plans.
"I think it's a backlash from all of the sameness we've seen for so long in shopping malls. People want to feel special. They want to be a part of the process," Bloom said. "That enhances their experience."
Similar to Converse and Nike — two athletic brands that made customization mainstream in the sneaker industry — Boathouse's customization experience starts with a laptop.
Boathouse uses its trademarked technology, True-Custom 3D (also debuting to the masses this week) — a result of a year of work and about a million-dollar investment. Once a consumer picks out his or her design, it is then reproduced, embroidered, and screen-printed or sublimated into the fabric (a process in which a printing-press-like apparatus uses heat and pressure to transfer ink into the actual fibers of the textile).
"The consumer has our factory at their fingertips," Strotbeck says to me a few times during the interview, each time with more delight. "It is by far the coolest and the fastest. It is awesome."
I got to be the judge of that.
Strotbeck invited me to design my own custom leggings and then witness the production process. An injured runner-turned-yogi, I thought, why not. (Strangely enough, I've never designed anything.) So last Tuesday, sitting in my parent's dining room, I went to www.boathouse.us, clicked custom, found tights, and started the process.
Up popped a boatload of options.
My first thought was to go for an all-over print for my pant. But because I was picking from the company's prints, I didn't think that would give me a chance to truly design anything. A solid color for the pant it would be.
"Mom," I asked, "what color should I make these leggings?"
"A dark one," she said giggling.
She wasn't lying, but I decided to start with orange — why not channel my chakra of creativity and passion?
On to the side panels. Here, I would get to play with patterns. The problem was, however, that about 50 options appeared: herringbone, hearts, windowpanes, squiggly lines, plaids. I started with herringbone before I moved over to a three-color plaid. I lost track of how many colors I clicked through. The whole process was dizzying. (See why I don't design?)
I scrapped the whole thing and started again. This time, I decided I needed a theme to guide me. Maybe stars and stripes?
What about Wonder Woman?
A cobalt-blue bottom? Oh, heck no. Maybe red? Too bold.
"Eh, I don't love it," Mom said.
I toned down the red to the deep burgundy.
"How is that?" I asked.
"I like it," she said.
I added a lighter burgundy waistband and side panel and added stars with a blue outline. I chose the label "Aunt Buh" on the waist panel, a nickname my niece gave me when she couldn't say Aunt Beth. She was 2 then; now she's 11.
The next morning, at Boathouse, I saw the graphic I created for my waistband and side panels, and watched it get sublimated into the fabric. It was then shuttled to a series of sewing stations: The legs were joined to the panels, the waistband was attached, then it was finished and hemmed.